Branch Rickey’s Farm System Owed Debt of Gratitude to Indians Owner Somers
Vince Guerrieri | On 09, May 2018
By the time Charles Somers was forced to sell the Indians after the 1915 season, whatever good will – and cash – he had was gone. Which is a shame, because probably nobody did as much as he did to keep not just the Indians, but the entire American League, afloat in its first decade.
Known as the “good angel of the American League,” Somers used his personal fortune to help build stadiums in Chicago and Philadelphia in addition to Cleveland, and at one point, while owner of the Indians (at the time called the Naps), he also owned shares in Boston to keep that team above water. In fact, the team was called the Somersets in some newspapers because of their owners.
But his lasting contribution might be the idea of the efficacy of a farm system – which was perfected a generation later by Branch Rickey.
Somers made it a point to make deals with other teams. His agreement with New Orleans gave the Indians a location to hold spring training every year, and his agreement with Toledo allowed him to stave off the Federal League in Cleveland. When that upstart league was in full competition with the major leagues, he made sure that whenever the Indians weren’t home at League Park, the Toledo team was, thus keeping any Federal League franchise from getting a foothold in the city.
In fact, it was the Federal League that led Somers to buy shares in other teams. In the days of baseball’s reserve clause, the only way players effectively saw pay raises was when there was competition for their services, i.e. another league. (In a roundabout way, that’s what led to Tris Speaker coming to Cleveland. Boston gave him a raise to keep him from jumping to the Federal League, and when the league folded, cut his salary accordingly. He held out, and was promptly dealt to the Indians.)
Like Rickey – a man who Enos Slaughter said was so cheap, he would go to the vault to get you a nickel change – Somers realized that ownership of minor-league teams would keep labor prices down. So he worked with Ernest Barnard, the Indians’ traveling secretary, to buy stock in teams not just in Toledo and New Orleans, but Ironton, Waterbury, Conn., and Portland, Ore.
But the Federal League took its toll on Somers, as did downturns in his mining and shipping businesses. He tried to stave off the sale of the Indians, first divesting himself of most of his minor league holdings and then by selling off players. Napoleon Lajoie was sold in 1914, necessitating the name change to the Indians, and Shoeless Joe Jackson was sold off the following year. Ultimately, he sold the team to Jim Dunn in 1916.
Even after he sold the Indians, he maintained partial ownership of the New Orleans Pelicans and in 1930, with his fortune largely rebuilt after the Roaring 20s, he was able to attain sole ownership.
Charles Somers died in 1934 in his summer home at Put-in-Bay. That year, the World Series was won by the Cardinals – with the Gas House Gang of the early 1930s serving as the culmination of Rickey’s farm system as well as a sign of things to come.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project